Last month, King Abdullah II released the fourth in a series of "discussion papers" on reform and change in Jordan. Like the first three, the new one was a well-crafted discussion of liberalization and reform. Unfortunately for the regime, however, there has been a great deal of discussion in Jordan about reform and change, but most of it recently centered on a series of crises — from media censorship to unrest in Ma’an (in the south of Jordan) — rather than on the fourth paper. Clearly that was not the intention. So what overshadowed this latest treatise and reform initiative? Partly timing, and partly a Jordanian public that is focused on different issues right now, not least of which is economic hardship.
Importantly, the fourth paper called specifically for civil society activism and citizen empowerment, yet the timing of its release could not have been worse: as it coincided with government blocking of more than 200 news websites across the country. The new paper was linked to a new initiative — Dimuqrati — that was unveiled on June 2 with great fanfare at the Royal Cultural Center in Amman. The Dimuqrati initiative is designed to empower citizen groups and grassroots civil society organizations, providing grants and funding for their work, and it is led by a highly regarded reform advocate, Omar Razzaz. The flourish amounted to more of a fizzle, however, as the initiative was — ironically — overshadowed and even eclipsed by the move against many independent media sites on precisely the same day. The wave of internet censorship also came immediately after Jordan had played host to the World Economic Forum (WEF), where the kingdom’s openness and reforms were key points of discussion and pride, and even the international meeting of the International Press Institute (IPI), where Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour had praised the importance of press and media freedoms.
The move to block select internet news sites had been building for some time. A year ago, the previous parliament and the previous government passed controversial legislation restricting internet news sites. The idea was to rein in tabloid style journalism that critics argued was shoddy at best, and amounted to chronic character assassination, libel, and outright disinformation at worst. The new law, however, targets all news websites and requires them to register with the government and to have an editor that is a certified member of the Jordan Press Association (JPA). But the JPA has, thus far, been limited to print media journalists, and many sites objected to registering with the state as a matter of democratic principle.
Many reform activists and journalists assumed, at the time, that the king would overturn the decisions of parliament and the government, but he did not. A year later, many assumed that the government would not really implement what was seen as a fairly draconian, and rather un-Jordanian, approach to online media. After all, Jordan has been one of the most open and most advanced countries in the entire Arab world when it comes to information technology, the internet, and social media. Most Arabic-language content on the internet in the region comes from Jordan. And Abdullah himself has predicated economic development on encouraging international investment in the kingdom, based on its openness to international business. This case is made often, in state visits to foreign capitals, and in semi-annual meetings of the WEF (most recently in May at Jordan’s Dead Sea resort). Shutting down hundreds of news sites, and indeed restricting the internet at all, clearly runs counter to these messages.
"Is this what was meant by democratic empowerment?" asked Basil Okoor, editor of the blocked website JO24.net, at a protest rally. "It’s hard," he noted in a discussion earlier that day, "people will continue to work, to fight the system, but advertisers?" Similarly, Daoud Kuttab, editor of the blocked Ammannet, noted "they didn’t stop us from working, they stopped Jordanians from seeing our work" — at least temporarily. Many sites continued to post articles via Twitter and Facebook and included instructions on how to get around the blocking by using proxy servers. This was a skill known to many in Libya, Tunisia, and Syria, but new to many Jordanians.
Why now, many Jordanians asked? For some, it seemed evidence that the royal court and the bureaucracy of governance were simply out of sync. Other journalists and activists I spoke with wondered aloud whether it was a more deliberate effort to put existing sites on notice, and hence to encourage Jordan’s already problematic media culture of self-censorship, and simply to silence others outright. "They are after the chilling effect," suggested one editor. Others cited a very real set of internal and external crises — from unrest in Ma’an to the Syrian civil war — suggesting a state desire to tone down coverage of these volatile issues. Still others suggested that the motivation may lie with the problem of sensationalist news coverage and web-based viral videos, and concerns over what these may mean for Jordan’s domestic stability later this summer, when electricity prices will likely be raised and protests and even riots are just as likely to follow.
The change in media and internet openness has led not just to criticism from domestic democracy activists and journalists, but also to a torrent of international criticism, especially from NGOs (compared to relative silence from many allied Western governments), including Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. To his credit, Ensour (who, as a member of the previous parliament, voted against the internet restrictions) met with representatives of many of these press freedom NGOs this week in Amman to discuss the issue.
Some Jordanians are sympathetic to the blocking of sites they deem irresponsible in their reporting. However, the act of censorship undermines Jordan’s economic development goals, its business climate for would-be investors, and very importantly, the democratic and reform initiatives that the king has been discussing in his four papers, and in the series of reforms that have emerged since 2011. These include amendments to the constitution, creation of a constitutional court and an independent electoral commission, and new laws on elections and parties, all of which culminated in the January elections.
It is not too late to undo the damage of the press and internet restrictions. With a prime minister who had voted against the law, a core of parliamentarians willing to revisit the issue, and a king who has, up to this point, always supported internet openness and media freedom, the law can be radically revised, or better yet, repealed. That will still leave the real issues of tabloid sensationalism and libel concerns that had led to the restrictions in the first place. But these would be better dealt with via the courts, and perhaps through a collective effort at a code of ethics for online journalism. Former Prime Minister Samir al-Rifa’i tried this measure before but his government fell shortly after the start of the regional "Arab Spring." It might be time to revisit these contentious issues from that angle, rather than the more sweeping move of shutting down websites outright.
Meanwhile, the shadow of the Syrian war looms ever larger and ever darker over Jordan. The kingdom now hosts more than 500,000 Syrian refugees. As tensions increase, and the war continues to spill over each of Syria’s borders, U.S. military backing of Jordan now includes "leaving behind" (following joint military maneuvers) Patriot Missile batteries and F16 Jet fighters for use, if necessary, by the Jordanian armed forces. The tensions and dangers to Jordan’s borders and internal security are real, but all the more reason to underscore and reinforce Jordan’s record of openness and inclusion, by restoring its internet and media openness to match in real terms the ambitions of the regime’s reform program.
Curtis R. Ryan @Curtisryan1 is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy.